GRANTS PASS, Ore. – An Oregon highway engineer who blew up a dead beached whale with a half-ton of dynamite in 1970 has died at the age of 84.
George Thomas Thornton gained national attention over the exploding whale, and the act endured for decades thanks to a video that shows giant pieces of whale carcass splattering across the beach and spectators.
Thornton got the call Nov. 12, 1970 to remove a 45-foot-long sperm whale estimated to weigh 8 tons that had washed up near Florence, and had started to stink. At the time, the state Highway Division had jurisdiction over beaches, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton. Thornton was a highly respected engineer who worked 37 years at the agency, he said.
Thornton had refused to talk about the exploding whale for many years, once remarking that every time he did, “it blew up in my face.”
“I don’t think he was trying to be funny,” said Paul Linnman, who hosts a news show on Portland radio KEX and did the 1970 report for KATU television news that became a staple on YouTube. “It’s just the way he felt.”
Thornton told Ed Shoaps, then a public information officer for ODOT, that the district engineer was going elk hunting and left the job to him.
Shoaps said Thornton felt they couldn’t haul the whale out to sea because it would wash back up. They couldn’t bury it on the beach, because the waves would uncover it. And they couldn’t burn it. So Thornton consulted the Navy and other munitions experts, and was advised to blow it up. His crew set the dynamite on the landward side of the whale, hoping to blow it into the water.
“We all know what happened after that,” said Shoaps.
In Linnman’s report, Thornton wears a hardhat and explains in a straightforward manner that the plan is to blow the whale into little pieces that can be consumed by gulls and crabs. About 75 spectators and news reporters draw back to a sand dune a quarter mile away. When the blast erupts, it is greeted with cries of wonder that are soon replaced by sounds of revulsion as bits of whale covered people in goo.
“The humour of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere,” Linnman says in the video. One big chunk flattened the roof of a car.
Some 20 years later, humour writer Dave Berry wrote about the exploding whale as one of his, “I’m not making this up” stories, said Shoaps. Someone posted it on a bulletin board in the early days of the Internet, and outraged people started calling ODOT to complain, not understanding it had happened 20 years before.
“I consider it the first story to go viral on the Internet,” said Shoaps. “The story persists because it is interesting.”
Indeed, a Google search turns up the YouTube video and a website, www.theexplodingwhale.com.
Perl Funeral Home in Medford confirmed Thornton died Oct. 27. His family declined comment.